Our next holiday destination was Kos, at that time an unspoilt island virtually untouched by the 20th century apart from the installation of electricity and an airport.
We rented a primitive villa known as Drossos’ Hovel, right on the beach and not far from Kos town. There were a couple of bedrooms, a veranda, a wash basin and a toilet. The floor was smooth concrete. The furniture consisted of beds, and plastic chairs and table on the veranda. The Hovel was whitewashed inside and out, and exquisitely cool after a hot day on the beach. As an escape from the horrors of commuting into and out of and working in Central London, it was perfect. Except for the toilet. Not that there was anything wrong with the toilet itself, it did flush, but you couldn’t put paper down it. Soiled paper was put in a small plastic bucket which was emptied daily by the maid. The children were horrified.
Stepping off our veranda (which was a few square yards of concrete), we were on the beach and 10 yards from the Aegean sea. There were no other buildings in sight, except for a shack a short way up the beach that sold cold drinks and served mouthwatering food so cheaply that we were embarrassed when the bill came. The owner was a Chris de Burgh fan who played his tapes constantly, recruiting a new fan in yours truly.
I can’t recall any other holiday that was so perfectly relaxing and which we as a family enjoyed quite so much.
Our maid was a very small, tanned and handsome retired policeman named Ianni, who spoke excellent English. After he had swept out the hovel and emptied the horrid plastic bin, he was happy to sit and talk over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and we quickly became good friends.
When it was time to leave, we told him we would be returning the following year and would book the hovel again.
“No,” he said. “Don’t do that. You don’t need to spend all that money. Come and stay at my house in Kos town. There is plenty of room, and you would be so welcome. Please come and stay with me. We are friends. You just buy your air tickets, and you pay for breakfast. Save a lot of money.”
It seemed impolite to refuse, so we did as he said. Next year we flew back. Ianni met us at the airport and drove us to his very large modern single storey house, and introduced us to his much younger voluptuous wife, Xanthipe, who was gracious and charming. She looked like a red-haired version of Lollobrigida, with a matching cleavage. Ianni told us they had married when she was 14. He had taken one look at her and knew at that instant that no other woman would do.
She showed us to our spacious, clean room. Then our holiday from hell began.
The heat was stifling. The mosquitoes were ravenous. The bedroom door did not open and close, but slid. If we left the window open, the mosquitoes kept us awake all night, and the door rattled in the breeze. If we closed the window we couldn’t breathe. Behind the house was a field wherein lived a cow and calf. The second day we were there the calf was taken away. The cow mooed and cried non-stop, day and night. Three houses away was a bouzouki bar. It opened at midnight, and bouzoukied until daylight. Sleep was impossible.
Another room in the house was rented out to a pleasant Greek lady doctor and her daughter, a girl of about 12 who was learning English. She practised on us. The sliding doors could not be locked, and she erupted through them unannounced at any time she wished, shouting: “Today I am go beach.” “Today I am go eat.” “Today I am go school.” “Today I am go hot.” And so on.
By the third morning we were ticking off the days until we could go home.
Breakfast was wonderful. Fresh baked fragrant Greek bread with honey, thick yoghurt, succulent watermelon, thick sweet Greek coffee and sticky pastries. It was the highlight of our day, before we set off, red-eyed and yawning to try to find a peaceful park or beach where we could sleep for a few hours.
We debated checking into a hotel, but how could we offend Ianni, who did everything to make our stay enjoyable, unaware that all we wanted was to be able to sleep at night? :)
He took us to see his vegetable garden. When we got there all his watermelons had been eaten by a belligerent sheep that was tied to a long rope. Why did he keep a sheep there if it ate his vegetables and fruit?
Well, he had wanted to find water for the garden, and had hired a water diviner. It was the custom,when looking for water, to buy a sheep and sacrifice it if water was found. Friends and family would be invited to a grand celebration barbecue. But when water was found, Ianni didn’t have the heart to hurt his sheep, so it now lived as a guest. He had bought a heap of meat to barbecue instead.
He took us to meet his friends, and to places where Greek men danced noisily in circles, and every morning he asked: “You are having a great time, yes?” And we would nod politely but untruthfully.
Finally the longed for day dawned when we were to fly home. We asked Ianni how much we owed. He called Xanthipe – that was her department. She gave us a piece of paper. I thought she had put too many zeros on the total, and crossed one off, and showed it to her. She shook her head and wrote the figure again.
When we said that it was far more than we had anticipated, our hostess began talking rapidly to Ianni, who explained that as special friends, the breakfast had been a gift – we hadn’t been charged for that, only for the rooms. The amount was astronomical, and would have bought us an all-inclusive holiday in a five star hotel, air fares included. We didn’t have that much money with us, and neither at that time did we have credit cards, only travellers’ cheques that we had put aside, optimistically, to pay the bill, but which were totally inadequate. We gave her what we had, and said we’d send the rest once we were home. Xanthipe scowled angrily and walked away in disgust.
Of course we did send the balance, as well as a gift of crystal wine glasses.
Would we go back to Greece for a holiday? Absolutely. But sadly not to Kos. How would we be able to explain to Ianni that we couldn’t afford his hospitality? :)
And it is only now, 40 years later, that I recall the warning about Greeks bearing gifts, and wonder if Ianni befriended all the families to whom he served as maid?